Yet another dance form that demonstrates the strong traditional influence inherent in Malaysian culture, the Kuda Kepang was first introduced here in the early 20th century when Javanese immigrants, who brought this unique dance, first arrived in the southern tip of the peninsula.
It is said that it was created by the Wali Songo or Nine Saints, who were instrumental in spreading the religion of Islam in the Indonesian island of Jawa; for the dance dramatises tales of holy wars won for Islam. However, it is also believed to have totemistic origins.
The dance, now popular in the state of Johor, is usually performed by nine to 15 dancers, all garbed in traditional Javanese clothes. The dancers are usually all men, though women dancers are not uncommon these days. However, seldom, if ever, will you see both genders performing this dance together.
In a performance, each dancer sits astride a mock horse, and they re-enact the battles to the beat of a percussion ensemble usually consisting of drums, gongs and angklungs. A dancer known as the Danyang will take the lead by directing the other dancers using a whip.
The dance is believed to have strong links to the spirit world. It is not uncommon to see a Kuda Kepang dancer entering a trance during a performance.
The two-dimensional mock horse – which is traditionally made out of hide or pleated bamboo, and is painted and decorated to resemble a horse – is said to harbour spirits which have to be appeased in a pre-dance ceremony conducted by a bomoh (shaman). These days, this belief and practice is not encouraged.
The Kuda Kepang has now become a regular fixture in grand occasions such as the birthday of the Sultan of Johor, state government celebrations, and cultural shows.